Students in Wilton High School’s Community Steps transition program for 18- to 21-year-olds with complex needs are launching a business called Wilton Swag on Friday, April 6.

“We’re working on our LLC,” Community Steps program director Melissa Barrett told The Bulletin on March 28.

The students will be selling reusable canvas bags, featuring the winning design from a logo contest earlier this year, at the Riverbrook Regional YMCA from 9 to noon and at the Village Market from 12:30 to 3 on Friday.

Barrett said Community Steps received about 20 to 25 logo submissions and the winning one, created by a Wilton student, won’t be revealed until Friday’s bag sale.

“We’re going to be at the farmer’s market in June with our bags as well, and then we’re going to be a little pop-up shop at town and community events,” Barrett said.

While the business goal right now is to expand merchandise, said speech and language pathologist Naomi Williams, the larger goal is to provide Community Steps students with experience and skills that can help them in their future internship and employment endeavors.

“Launching the business is like a sliver of the pie,” said Barrett, noting that statistics on employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities is not very high. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Employment


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary released last June, people with disabilities are “much less likely” to be employed than those with no disability. In fact, the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities in 2016 was “about twice of that of those with no disability.”

Barrett said it can be difficult for companies “to open up their mind-set to employing somebody with a disability,” but there’s a “fiscal piece” to adults with disabilities being unemployed.

“If they are not receiving an income,” she said, “they are accessing taxpayer-subsidized supports” like Social Security disability, unemployment benefits, and Husky C Medicaid.

“We want our students and adults with disabilities to be meaningful members of their community,” said Barrett, “and we are very grateful to the businesses we’re currently partnered with, [as] these partnerships have been a benefit to both the host site and the student.”

Community Steps has “contacted many businesses within town,” she said, “and is eager to have employers lengthen their lens to see all the abilities that adults with disabilities have, as well as the impact they can have on the climate of workplace.”

By launching a company like Wilton Swag, Williams said, “we hope it will show the community what some of our students are capable of doing.”

Barrett said Community Steps students have done “a lot of the work” on the business and are learning to put their individual skills to use.

“Some of them are going to be great at customer service and some are not. Those who aren’t are going to be keeping track of the inventory, how much the bags cost and when we need to order more,” she said.

There’s even one student who is “quite interested in the advertising piece,” added Williams.

Under state law, said Barrett, students cannot stay in Community Steps after age 21 — “that’s why the employment piece is the most crucial thing.”

“Establishing meaningful employment for them while they have support and resources is so important because it sets them up for success,” she said. “Without that, it’s difficult.”

Barrett said she would ask members of the local business community to “be open-minded about the skill sets that individuals with disabilities have and give them the opportunity to demonstrate those skills while understanding the benefit these individuals can also have to the climate and culture of a business.”

Williams said she would ask businesses to “think long and hard about jobs available within the company” that individuals with disabilities could do.

“I think sometimes, it’s just a very quick, ‘No, we don’t have anything,’ but if they took a good look, they could find opportunities,” she said.

“Wilton’s a really wonderful community — and quite a close-knit community — so I’d ask them to really open their minds and their hearts and let our students in and provide them with these opportunities to really make them part of the community.”

Barrett said she would also ask companies to “look outside of the stereotypical jobs that individuals with disabilities can do.”

“There’s more than just bagging groceries and stocking shelves. They’re just like any one of us — they want to find a job that matches their skill set,” she said.

Barrett and Williams said their students have “special skills to offer,” and engaging in “authentic tasks and activities” in their home community would not only allow them to continue growing but also give them a chance to give back to their community.

Program growth


There are six students in Community Steps, and the program is “growing quite quickly,” said Williams. “We even grew within the first months. We didn’t start with six.

“We’re projected to have seven next year,” she said. “The following year, we’re projected to have 10, and then 15 the year after that.”

Community Steps has not only increased “the quality of service” to the Wilton school district’s 18- to 21-year-old age group — as then Board of Education chair Bruce Likly put it last April — but is also saving the district in outplacement expenses.

Last April, the former assistant superintendent for special services, Ann Paul, told the Board of Education that out-of-district placement costs for four outplaced students in 2017-18 would be around $393,520, but with the Community Steps program, the cost would drop to $361,000 and cover staff, materials and transportation.

Community members looking to partner with Community Steps may contact Barrett at barrettm@wiltonps.org.